Mar/Apr 1999 Nonfiction

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
-Chapter Seven-

by Dail Bridges

One afternoon, as I heaved my baskets around in the factory, the alarm bells suddenly started ringing. Knee deep in the beginning of a trawl we had just brought on, I knew the officers could not be ready to re-set the net. Despite the noises of the factory equipment, I heard the Fishing Master's voice, sounding frantic, over the loudspeaker. Akihamasan stopped his work and motioned for the rest of the crew to follow as he raced up to the deck. Flinging knives aside, men shouted and bumped into each other as they rushed to follow Akihama.

I gave the crew time to clear the stairwells then went above deck myself. Early afternoon dusk was settling over the ship and the sea shone like a silvery mirror as I emerged from the factory. This far north in the winter, we had daylight only from about 10:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. I came out on the port side of the deck to find most of the crew clustered against the starboard railing, looking into the water. Several men threw ropes back and forth. Agitated shouts followed the ropes through the air. Seeing the Deck Master with a life ring in his hand, I realized someone had gone overboard. The Deck Master threw the life ring, attached to a coiled rope, over the side of the KYOWA. I saw two other Japanese fishing boats racing towards us, white waves cresting as their bows pushed through the ocean.

I ran over to the starboard rail, blocked by a pile of fishing net. Climbing to the top of the netting, I grasped the rail to steady myself. In the dimming light, I saw two men in the sea. Their arms flailed through the air, splashing weakly in the water, like tiny young birds, fluttering helplessly because they have not yet learned to fly. One man bobbed under, then slowly rose again. I recognized Masadru, his curls drooping like limp tentacles over his face. The second man, Hoshii, churned the water as he spun in slow circles, round and round. Two life rings floated gently near the men, but neither seemed to notice them. The only clear thought I had was that the water must be terribly, horribly cold.

A splash from mid-ships tore my attention away from the nightmare below me. A life raft containing both the Chief Officer and the Deck Master had been lowered into the sea.

The Chief Officer struggled to start the engine of the rubber dingy. Hoshii had managed to throw an arm over one of the life rings. Masadru sank again beneath the water. Time seemed to stop; at least an hour passed before he rose again. The life boat engine sputtered and died, once, twice, three times. With this, the Deck Master dove into the frigid water and began swimming—so slowly, it seemed—toward Masadru. He stroked in slow motion—was I dreaming?— through the gently rolling water, grabbing the life ring as he passed it. An hour, two hours passed, before the Deck Master reached Masadru. He struggled with Masadru's limp body, placing an arm over the life ring; it slid off into the water. The second arm wrapped around the Deck Master's neck, pulling him under. A wrestling match taking place in the sea, with both contestants sure to lose.

The zodiac engine finally chugged to life, and the Chief Officer raced first to Hoshii. Leaning precariously over the side, he grabbed Hoshii around the waist and tugged him into the boat, where he lay flopped onto the bottom, not moving. The rescue vessel tilted wildly as the Chief Officer dove to the back and opened the throttle of the engine, leaping through the water like a giant orange lion springing after its weakened prey.

Another eternity passed before the Chief Officer succeeded in getting Masadru and the Deck Master into the life raft, where they joined Hoshii, spread-eagled on the bottom. The Chief Officer gunned the engine and steered his way back to our vessel. He clipped the two hooks dangling over the side of the ship onto the front and back ends of the life raft. At his signal, the crew member operating the winch slowly began to raise the life raft up and over the side of the KYOWA, back onto the deck, where it landed with a thunk.

Several crew members surrounded the life raft and gently picked up both Masadru and Hoshii. Akihamasan, his arms around Masadru, set him upright, but he immediately collapsed onto the deck. The Deck Master wobbled to his feet, and the crew members bundled the three wet and freezing men off toward the cabins.

I joined a group of milling crew members, including Kazukisan. His arms gesturing expansively, he explained what had happened. Apparently Hoshii had been near the edge of the deck and a wildly swinging cargo hook had knocked him overboard. Masadru had been operating the crane controlling the cargo hook and was the only person who saw what happened. He leapt down from the crane and jumped overboard to try and save Hoshii. Luckily, others saw him jump over, realized what had happened and sounded the alarm bells.

The deck bell pealed through the air, and Akihamasan motioned for the crew to return to the factory. Reluctantly, they began to make their way down the deck, toward the factory stairs, talking agitatedly among themselves.

I went up to the bridge. Opening the door, I found the Fishing Master puffing away on a cigarette and swallowing big gulps of Saki. The Captain shouted excitedly into the radio, gesturing wildly with one hand and holding his own glass of Saki in the other. When he saw me, the Captain put down the radio receiver and motioned for me to join him at the chart table. He pointed first at Dutch Harbor and then to Anchorage.

"Mr. Hoshiisan bad hurt shoulder. Maybe, Miss Dairusan, you to call Coast Guard take him to United States hospital. OK?" I knew that the KYOWA's Chief Officer was our only source of First Aid, and his knowledge was minimal—limited, from what I could gather, to band-aids and aspirin. I told the Captain I would do whatever I could to help.

Later that evening, the Captain told me that I would not need to call the Coast Guard, as there was a Japanese "Mother Ship" in the area, and we would rendezvous with it. Crew members had provided me with vivid descriptions of these Mother Ships, or "Mamasans," as they called them; they carried supplies of all kinds, as well as doctors and other personnel. All of the small fishing boats, like the KYOWA, off loaded their frozen fish products onto the Mother Ship when their holds were full.

The evening was an unusually calm one for mid-March in the Bering Sea. Instead of icy winds and sleet, the air stood still and quiet. A wet, chill fog enveloped us. The deck lights shimmered in the soft mist. Water droplets clung to every surface, and they danced in the light like a quivering diamond necklace.

I stood on the flying bridge, the open deck on top of the bridge and the highest point on the vessel. The dampness seeped through my thick layers of clothing. The mist surrounded me like a protective cocoon as I stared out over the dark sea at the blurred lights of other fishing boats in the distance. The sound of foghorns moaned through the night. I felt immersed in an eerie and alien world.

The KYOWA's engines chugged quietly as we made our way through the still water. Suddenly, a huge, dark shape loomed ahead of us, shining softly through the fog. The ethereal Mamasan, bigger than I could have imagined. It seemed to have no beginning and no end and shimmered over us like a higher being. Surely it would swallow the KYOWA, pulling us right into its vast glow. My own "Abducted by Aliens" adventure.

The men scurried around two stories below me, readying the life raft for Hoshii. Their words echoed and bounced through the darkness. I imagined that we must look like a tiny insect beside the Mamasan's vast, impenetrable hull. Craning my neck upward, I could see lights and shadowy, small figures leaning out over the deck. They seemed miles above me.

Our crewmen lowered the lifeboat overboard, with Hoshii and the Chief Officer ensconced. The Chief Officer motored to the waiting Mamasan and attached long, dangling cables to his raft. Slowly, slowly, the small boat began to climb up the steep side of the large vessel. I watched as it passed the KYOWA's bridge, and then me, crawling like a small bug up and up the dark hull and disappearing over the top.

Still later that night—or rather, early morning—the Chief Officer returned alone to the KYOWA. Hoshii was to be sent back home on the next boat returning to Japan, as his injury was too serious to be treated at sea.

On the bridge, the Fishing Master told me that the next net would not be set until later in the morning. I returned to my cabin and fell into bed. I tossed restlessly on my sandbag mattress, feeling small and alone. The sea allowed us to encase ourselves in steel and float upon her surface; she even shared with us the offerings of her depths. Then it was as if she needed to remind us that we were here at her invitation, an invitation that could be revoked at any time. A storm, a person overboard...with these the sea showed her power over us.

I envisioned standing on the stern deck of the KYOWA at night as we churned through the water to a new fishing area, stumbling accidentally over a coil of net, and flailing over the side into the darkness, down, down into the cold black sea. Watching the KYOWA as it raced away from me, with no one having seen me. I wondered how long I would last in that dark, horribly cold water? Ten minutes, maybe. It was a long time before I fell asleep.


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